Police State Rising:  The Function of Surveillance in Orwell’s 1984


Police State Rising    


First named by Sir Thomas More in the sixteenth century, a utopia is the dream of an ideal world, or at least of a better world than we know.  Its antithesis, a dystopia, or anti-utopia, is a depressing world in which negative social and political trends are exaggerated to the point of being far worse than anything we have yet encountered.  (According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of “dystopia” was by John Stuart Mill in 1868.)  By all accounts George Orwell’s 1984 contains the supreme example of a dystopia—the worst of all possible worlds.


The world envisioned in 1984 is an abysmal nightmare, bleak and cold—and unendingly frightening.  In a review of 1984 in the year of its publication (1949) V.S. Pritchett called it a “book that goes through the reader like an east wind, cracking the skin, opening the sores; hope has died in Mr. Orwell’s wintry mind, and only pain is known” (p. 291).  1984 sums up the pessimism of Orwell’s age, which had survived the fanaticism of Franco and Hitler and was still experiencing Stalin, but also it probably embodies Orwell’s own despair as he lay dying of tuberculosis while trying to finish what would become his most profound and best-known work. 1984, a blueprint for the “perfect” police state, is Orwell’s prophetic warning to his contemporaries and to future readers about the most terrifying component of such a state: unremitting surveillance.  In the words of an elusive character in the novel named Emmanuel Goldstein, “By comparison with that existing today all the tyrannies of the past were half-hearted and inefficient” because “in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under surveillance” (p.137). (1) It is this feature, he realizes, that gives a government absolute control.


Roughly two-thirds of the way through 1984, its protagonist, Winston Smith, a disaffected mid-level bureaucrat (a member of the Outer Party), gains access to a copy of Goldstein’s work, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a political analysis that systematically explores the totalitarian structure of Oceania, Winston’s country and one of three superpowers in a perennial state of war.  Goldstein, who appears to be a fictional representation of Russian Jewish revolutionary Leon Trotsky, had allegedly been an important member of the Inner Party, the oligarchy that governs the country, but “had engaged in counterrevolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared” (p. 10).  Subsequently Goldstein is reviled in Oceania as the Chief Enemy of the State.  In actuality, since no one has ever seen him except in State-controlled videos, he may be merely a convenient myth, but Winston is impressed with the comments on surveillance attributed to “Goldstein,” whoever he may be.  “With the development of television,” “Goldstein” asserts, “and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end [emphasis mine].  Every citizen or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed.  The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time” (p. 137).


Winston is aware that the person who wrote these words is of superior intelligence, but he is also aware that he hasn’t learned much from them because he is victimized by these principles on a daily basis; unfortunately, theory and practice coincide all too well.  Superficially Winston’s life (and everybody else’s) is dominated by the Police Patrol, “snooping into people’s windows” (p.4), by the oversized, ubiquitous posters of Big Brother, and by a telescreen in his apartment that could watch almost everything he did and hear every sound above a whisper

that he made.  “The patrols did not matter,” in Winston’s opinion (p. 4), but the government of Big Brother and the insidious telescreens supervised by the Thought Police mattered very much.


Big Brother, like Goldstein, may be a myth, a personification of the State, as Inner Party member O’Brien later confirms; but his people worship him as their ruler and as their god.  Like Goldstein he has never been seen, but, though he is almost certainly without flesh-and-blood existence, his portrait is everywhere:  “an enormous face, more than a meter wide:  the face of a man about forty-five, with a heavy black mustache and ruggedly handsome features” (p.3).  The caption beneath the portrait reads “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU....It was one of those pictures,” Winston notes, “which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move” (p. 3).


Literary and social historians have identified Joseph Stalin as the model for Big Brother; Stalin, too, had his portrait all over Soviet Russia, and his face was very similar to Big Brother’s.  Orwell, an ardent Socialist, flirted with Soviet-style Communism for a while, but eventually turned away from it when he recognized Stalin’s true nature as a brutal dictator.  Big Brother’s repressive government, understandably, has been interpreted as Stalinist Russia writ large, the totalitarianism of Stalin carried to a horrifically logical extreme.  Without doubt there are plot elements in l984 that are redolent of Stalinist tactics:  public trials of important government officials accused of trumped-up charges; ordinary citizens, responding to a knock at the door late at night, then disappearing, never to be heard from again; overzealous children, well indoctrinated by the State, denouncing their parents as traitors. (It is not be assumed, of course, that these unconscionable tactics were/are the exclusive property of Stalin’s administration.)





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Paul D. Green

Image © Peter Groesbeck



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